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William (Bill) Sill - SVP Member Passed Away at 70


William Dudley (Bill) Sill, Ph.D. 1937 - 2008

Bill Sill

Bill Sill, Vertebrate Paleontologist, Geologist, Professor, Mormon Bishop, and sometime purported Indiana Jones died March 15, 2008 at the age of 70 years, of respiratory failure associated with a decades-long battle with muscular dystrophy. He was a member of SVP for 34 years, from 1964 to 1998. Bill was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada. During his senior year in high school he worked at the Las Vegas airport, trading mechanical work for flying lessons. As a pilot, he would fly to Mexico, pick up fresh-caught seafood, and fly it back to sell to the hotels and restaurants in Vegas at cut-rate prices. He also ran an unofficial air ferry service for hung- over casino patrons who felt unable to drive themselves back to Los Angeles. He served in the Army National Guard from 1955 to 1958. From 1958 to 1961 he was on a mission in Argentina for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. There he married Nelida Salinas and learned Spanish. He was a natural-born linguist who spoke several languages, including ancient Hebrew (to better understand Biblical translation of scripture). He had a working knowledge of French, German, Italian and Swahili. Bill and Nelida had four children, all surviving him. None is a paleontologist.

After his first sojourn in Argentina the Sills moved to Utah where, in 1963, Bill obtained a bachelor’s degree in geology from Brigham Young University. (As extracurricular activity he was photographed carrying a banner at the historic 1963 Martin Luther King gathering in Washington D.C.) He entered the graduate geology program at Harvard in 1964, earning an M.S. and  Ph.D. under Al Romer’s supervision in 1968. His dissertation, dealing with functional anatomy of the rhynchosaurian skull was published in parts (Sill, 1970a and 1971a). A possibly unique, and certainly interesting sidelight of Bill’s student career at Harvard is that, ever strapped for cash, and with a wife and four children to support, he drove a taxi at night in Boston to make ends meet, studying in his cab between fares. He nevertheless found time during his student years to publish a landmark paper on crocodilian zoogeography (Sill, 1968) and a detailed account of an early thecodontian from Ischigualasto. At Harvard Bill came under the influence of Bryan Patterson, and the two established a close relationship which lasted for the rest of their lives. Although Bill’s primary interests lay with archosaurs, he and Pat spent exhilarating times discussing weighty philosophical questions about evolution and “the general nature of things”. He accompanied Pat and colleagues on three expeditions to Kenya where, on one occasion, he was present at the discovery of the then oldest known hominid fossil. This event made a deep impression on Bill who, being an accomplished photographer, produced a short film of the episode, and donated it to the SVP (proceeds from sales of the film going to the Bryan Patterson Memorial Fund). Bill was also among the early explorers at Lothagam Hill, mapping the area with Pat and later joining Patterson and Anna Behrensmeyer in an account of their work at the site in 1967and 1968 (Patterson et al., 1970b).

Upon graduating from Harvard, Bill became an associate at Peabody Museum and the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Yale, from 1968 to 1970. While at Yale, he published “The Tetrapod-bearing continental Triassic sediments of South America” (Sill, 1969). But Argentina beckoned and the Sill family returned to take up residency at the Instituto Miguel Lillo in Tucumán, in 1970, moving thence to San Juan, Argentina, in 1971.There Bill began what became his life’s cause célèbre, the establishment of a provincial park at Ischigualasto, in the shadow of the Andes. He developed a plan for the park, and instituted a research center for paleontological research at the University of San Juan. He continued his studies on thecodont evolution and the relationships between Rauisuchidae and Erythrosuchidae, which eventually resulted in two publications (Sill, 1971b and 1975). In 1971 he was appointed the first Professor of Paleontology at the National University of San Juan, served as departmental chairman for a couple of years, founded the Museum of Natural Sciences, and greatly increased local interest in fossils and the territory of Ischegualasto. The bucolic life appealed to Bill. He wrote me of his joy at being “socially extinct in a place where drugs and public immorality are essentially unknown, where school teachers still inspect kids’ fingernails and neighbors gather on the sidewalks in the evening to talk.” He acquired a ranchero where he cultivated grapes and olives, and raised pigs and rabbits. As a gaucho, he eschewed machinery and worked his land with horse-power and a walk-behind plow. Pictures from this time show a deeply tanned personification of the proverbial Farmer Brown, sombrero, coveralls and all. Bill’s extended lobbying and persistent cajoling of the Argentine national legislature on behalf of his dream of a park at Ischigualasto bore fruit in 1973 when the federal government accepted his plan and created the Valley of the Moon National Park in the Ischigualasto basin. Besides its magnificent scenery, the 155,000 acres of the Valley of the Moon encompasses a perpetual paleontological preserve that contains the only unbroken record of the continental Triassic on earth. Bill described it as ”a beautiful land of desert mountains, vineyards, clean air and incredibly blue sky.” Later, largely at Bill’s instigation, the Valley of the Moon was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and the Argentine congress cited Bill as a “Tesoro Nacional” (National Treasure).

But as his life progressed Bill became more involved in education, and in 1976 he left the little farm in San Juan and moved to Buenos Aires, there assuming directorship of the L.D.S. Church education system in Argentina. The Sills stayed in the capital for two years, but in 1978 political unrest in Argentina reached such a level that Bill, a known opposition sympathizer, was advised by the U. S. Embassy, to leave the country in haste. He had, it seems, among “other seditious acts”, given sanctuary in his home to some political refugees and helped them escape across the Rio Paraná into neighboring Uruguay.

From Buenos Aires the Sills moved to Austin, Texas, in July 1978 where he assumed directorship of the L.D.S. Institute. Close by the campus of the University of Texas and the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory, Bill’s paleontological interests were reignited and he was filled by enthusiasm at the prospect of resuming his work with fossil crocodilians at the Texas Memorial Museum. He was overjoyed at the vast Triassic exposures in western Texas, which he hoped to prospect. Alas, he found the demands of running the Institute where he also taught non-sectarian courses in “Science and Religion” and “Comparative Religion” to diverse groups of religious believers, agnostics, pastors and rabbis,  which left little time to pursue fossil crocodilians. Bill obtained an appointment as lecturer in the Department of Geological Sciences at The University of Texas, where he taught physical and historical geology and the senior field course. While in Austin he co-authored the second edition of a well-received introductory lab manual in geology (O’Dunn and Sill, 1986). In Austin Bill commenced an expanded study of the South American gharial Ikanogavialis gameroi, which he had earlier named (Sill, 1970c). Regrettably, this work never progressed beyond the outline stage.

In 1990, having just been diagnosed with his insidious illness, Bill moved to Norman, Oklahoma, again serving as director of an LDS Institute near the University of Oklahoma for the next three years. Bill retired in 1992 and returned to San Juan with Nelida and two grand daughters, whom they were raising. He was named Curator of Paleontology at the museum of the Universidad Nacional de San Juan, recognition which he valued highly. Bill had eight relatively good years in San Juan, exploring the Triassic in “his” Valle de la Luna, riding on a “Gaucho jeep”, AKA burro, furnished him by the museum. 1993 witnessed him being strapped  into the doorway of a friend’s small airplane and being flown around the badlands taking magnificent low altitude oblique-angle stereo photographs of fossil sites in Ischgualasto, and in some sense anticipating Google by a couple of decades. He later published an account of his methodology (Sill, 1993 and 1995).

Bill introduced Ischigualasto to Earthwatch and Earthwatch toIschigualasto, and supervising collecting parties in the field. Later he “graduated” to a more sophisticated mode of transportation, an ATV, courtesy of Earthwatch volunteers, and extended his radius of operations, but in some ways, he related, the ATV was no more efficient than his previous mode of transport (the ATV had to be filled with gas periodically whereas his little old “jeep” produced it). In 2000, Earthwatch selected Bill as their Scientist of the Year, and in 2001 he produced an interesting article for the Earthwatch Institute Journal entitled “Crucibles of Evolution” (Sill, 2001). Other articles published in Earthwatch were also concerened with evolution (Sill, 1999 and 2000). The Sills returned to the States in 2002 as Bill’s physical condition worsened.  He became bedridden in 2004.

Bill was laid to rest in Las Vegas, but at his request, his heart was taken to Argentina and placed in an urn within a monument in his beloved Valle de la Luna at Ischegualsto, A ceremony was held in July 2008 in San Juan commemorating Bill’s contributions to the establishment of the national park, and the governor of San Juan unveiled plans for the Dr. William D. Sill Interactive Museum to be constructed in the park.

I am indebted to Bill’s son, also named Bill, of Austin, Texas, for his generous assistance, fact checking, and the accompanying photograph, enhanced by Dr. Leonard Murray…….    Wann Langston, Jr.  April, 2009.

References Cited, Including Bibliography of W. D. Sill

Sill, W.D. 1967. Protorochampsa barrionuovoi and the early evolution of the crocodilia. Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology  135:     415-446.

1968. The zoogeography of the Crocodilia. Copeia 68: 76-88.

1969. The tetrapod-bearing continental Triassic sediments of South America. American Journal of Science 267: 805-821.

1970a. Scaphonyx  sanjuanensis, Nuevo rincosaurio (reptilia) de la formacion Ischigualasto, Triasico de San Juan, Argentina.   

1970b. Geology and fauna of a new Pliocene locality in north-western Kenya. Nature 226: 918-921.(with Patterson, B. and Behrensmeyer, A.K.)

1970c. Nota preliminary sobre un nuevo gavial del Plioceno de Venezuela y una discussion de los gavials sudamericano. Ameghiniana 7: 341-354.

1971a. Functional morphology of the rhynchosaur skull. Forma et Functio 4: 303-318.

1971b. Implicaciones  estratigraficas y ecologicas de los rincosaurs. Asociación Geólogica Argentina, Revista 26:163-168.

1974. The anatomy of Sarcosuchus galilei and the relationships of the rauisuchid thecodonts. Bulletin Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard 146: 317-362.

1975. Nuevas interpretaciones de la evolucion de los tecodonts. Actas del Congreso Argentino de Paleontologia y Biostratigrafia 1:545-553.

1980. (with Shannan O.Dunn).Exploring Geology. Palo Alto, T.H. Peek: 292pp.

1993. Fotografias aereas estereoscopicas de baja altura y angulo para el studio de sediments continentals y ubicacion de fossils. Ameghiniana 30 (3): 341 (abstract).

1995. Oblique angle low altitude stereophotographs for mapping and locating vertebrate paleontological sites. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 15 Supplement (3): 53A abstract).

1999. The chess game of evolution; the question is not how the dinosaurs died, but why they lived at all. Earthwatch, Belmont, Mass, 13 (6): 16-23.             

2000. Fast track evolution in stressed environments, the key factor for origin of dinosaurs and mammals. Earthwatch Institute Journal 20 (3): 25-31. (earthwatch.org/pubaffairs/news/sill.html)

2001.Unpublished manuscript (6pp). The anvil of evolution.


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